The Bluebird Sessions: Lester Bangs, Where the Hell Have You Been, Man?




Bluebird Blvd. Presents: Make the Song Go Bang!




To hell with Ziggy Stardust, which amounted to starring Judy Garland in The Reluctant Astronaut.

Lester Bangs

 
 
 

You never know what you’re getting into when you decide to write about a major subject in rock history.

The next thing you know, you’re in the thick of it and the scrap is flying and the verbs stop working and every song you’re looking for on Grooveshark is grossly mislabeled.  (Who the hell puts Van Morrison under the mysterious label VA? Who the hell is VA?)

And that’s when you really start cursing, but good.

Tonight is a perfect example of fine intentions gone terribly, hideously awful.

I’m trying to write about rock critic Lester Bangs.  (Yes, please do focus on the trying part.)

Before I even considered this particular Bluebird Sessions, I had to ‘fess up to myself that I don’t know Bangs as well as I should, and that I am really near crazy for trying to write about him in the first place.

Well.

Here we are.

It’s impossible to give an overview of Bangs or his work as a critic without sliding sideways on greased wheels right into the flippant over-the-counter drug fueled patois of El Bangs himself.

So, to that end, I’ve given up and given in to the impulse to just be Bangs for the day.  I’m going to use a lot of irony-free italicized statements and a WHOLE bunch of overexcited capitalized ones.  And soupçon of rhetorical questions.  Why not?   If we’re going to go there, let’s go there, right?

Yeah, I thought so.








Lester Bangs, in brief:  Rock critic extraordinaire.  Wrote briefly for Rolling Stone and was fired, according to legend, for writing a bad review of Canned Heat.

Big man at Creem, but shared mental space with his protégé, fellow rock writer and musician, Peter Laughner— who died in 1977, five years before Bangs himself would overdose in New York City on a combination of pills.  (Bangs had recently quit drinking.)

Portrayed quite reverentially in Almost Famous by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who captured the weird combination of coolness, clarity and hyper-chaotic excitement that Bangs exuded in person and on the page.

Whew!  How’m I doing folks?  Am I holding it together?

In truth, when I started writing The Bluebird Sessions and doing 5-Minute Dance Parties on my page, I have to be honest— I was quite terrified.  Music is not my area of expertise.  I am a fan of music.  Not an expert.  Never have been an expert.

Yeah, I studied piano for eight years, but to tell you the tricky little truth— my gifted piano teacher didn’t want to fool with someone who picked up everything by ear and appeared to refuse to learn how to sight-read music properly.

(Personally?  I think my inability to read music was another form of my dyscalculia.)




Lester Bangs



ANYWAY.  Let me stop listening to The Clash here for a second in order to get down ‘n’ dirty serious with you.   The thing that kept me thinking and writing and talking about music was LESTER BANGS.

Yeah, I know that he’s was an encyclopedic genius with the ability to toss out these long, funny and strange reviews and covers of new music.

(And kids? Know that he had a host of editors, copy editors and fact-checkers to catch his errors. Bangs also revised like a madman. He was a professional writer after all. Tossing out is a turn of phrase, not a big reveal on the way the man wrote.)

Yeah, I know that he got in on the ground floor of not one, but two different music magazines— Rolling Stone and Creem— penning a type of music writing we take for granted today as literary institutions of the contemporary cultural world.

But, daaaaaamn, do you know what I love about Bangs?  Do you?




The man was a fan.  Down to his most-assuredly unwashed socks.  He LOVED music— new music.  Old music.  Big music.  Small music.  Stupid music.  Smart music.

Bangs went and heard everything.  If he hated it, he listened to it two or more times.  He hated albums that later, he loved enough to throw a counter-argument against his own previous emphatic opinions down on the metaphorical table in front of us, his readers.

A few words about reading Bangs. It’s kind of like taking medication. Use only as directed. Too much of Lester Bangs’s writing and you will see a freaky fifth-dimension and start yearning for plasticized Beatle boots.

Sometimes reading his work is like reading a bunch of hyperactive middle-of-the-night emphatic verbs running around sweat-nasty on the page tripping over proper nouns and BIG CAPITALIZED PRONOUNCEMENTS and weird constructions of whatnots that may cause nosebleeds if you try to examine them any closer.

His obsession with Lou Reed drives me to guzzling mixed nuts at the kitchen counter while glowering at the turquoise clock tocking away behind the stove.




Lester Bangs



Bangs could be cruel and funny and terrible.

James Taylor Marked for Death came up recently in one of those PBS specials that seems to repeat on the worst possible nights when The Husband wants to watch Downton Abbey and he finds Peter, Paul and Mary warbling through another one of their Special Concerts to Support the Making of Concerts that Are Affiliated With Important Charities That Build Windmills.  End stop.

In the PBS special I suffered through that night, James Taylor himself brought up Bangs in that laconic drawl of his, a voice that involuntarily causes my eyes to roll back in a squamous flutter.

At that exact moment, I realized that Taylor would bring Bangs back from the dead, if he could, by any means at his laconic disposal, for the sole purpose of killing Lester Bangs for writing not only James Taylor Marked for Death, but also the meanest album review 800 words or fewer— James Taylor:  One Man Dog.

 
 
 

Having never been a big James Taylor fan myownself, I found Taylor’s response fascinating. 

Was Taylor expressing a human emotion besides that chickory-tainted folksy earnestness?

Is it possible?

I dog-eared that moment in my head and got on with my work in another room.

I was thinking about writing a Lester Bangs tribute back then, but I couldn’t get up the nerve. I can’t say I have the nerve now. What I have is the deadline.

I know I set out today to write about Lester Bangs, and I ended up writing about him in a way that barely touches the tip of the Bangs experience, but I don’t know how to get you any closer.  He was such a white-hot star of blazing music-fueled originality that it is still hard to grasp the gut-soul of the man, ya dig?

When I write about music on The Bluebird Sessions every other week or so, or when I put together my daily 5-Minute Dance Parties, I am thinking about Lester Bangs.  More than I can explain.




The man had heart is all I’m saying.  A big heart.

And he believed that rock and roll and jazz and soul and country and all that new music changed how we thought about ourselves.  About each other.

Bangs wrote a lot about that a lot, too, tucked between his hyperbolic and encyclopedic discussion of music and his raving and scathing sharp-shooter reviews.

But, the big thing here is that he had heart to spare.  It’s Lester Bangs that’s on my mind tonight as I think about music.  (Well, Lester Bangs and that terrifying James Taylor with bloodlust in his drawl.)






*A couple of quick notes— The musical selection above was pulled from reviews I read in Lester Bangs’ amazing collection of works “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung”, edited by the fab-o Greil Marcus. You’re probably going to want to read the New York Times obituary for Lester Bangs, but the real deal is music writer and professor Robert Christgau’s lengthy obituary for The Village Voice. titled, simply Lester Bangs, 1948-1982.


WHAT?!? NOT ENOUGH LESTER BANGS FOR YA? HERE YOU GO, YA DOG— Instant Bluebird! Make the Song Go Bang! (A Quick Lester Bangs Primer)


James taylor publicity photo


About Courtenay Bluebird

Courtenay Bluebird is the creator of Bluebird Blvd. and The Bluebird B-Side. She is a published writer, career journalist, and professional photographer who likes books and sweets. She laughs loudly and sincerely both in public and in private.
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5 Comments

  1. “I realized that Taylor would bring Bangs back from the dead, if he could, by any means at his laconic disposal, for the sole purpose of killing Lester Bangs …”

    BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

    Holy s***, this is the greatest thing ever.

    • I was on needles and pins and other poky things wondering what you would think of my Lester Bangs piece— given that YOU are the one that INTRODUCED ME to Bangs all those years ago. In fact, the edition of “Psychotic Reactions” is your original copy. That books has been through heck and back now. If I managed to make you laugh, then I can give myself a checkmark on this difficult story. Thankyouthankyouthankyothankyou.

  2. I had to like Big Lebowski, in spite of whatever might be wrong with it for one line: I hate the f—kin’ Eagles, man! And my contempt for James Taylor is almost at that level, as well. I think the bizarre Boomer narcissism that incessently repeats that music in the g–damn SEVENTIES for fuck’s sake (literally the worst decade for music EVER) was the best ever is reflective of most of the players. Joni Mitchell, for instance, could rise above that culture a little, but check her out: ditching nice guy and genuine song writer Graham Nash for, though not immediately, James Soulless Undead Taylor! And then Jackson Browne at HIS most narcissistic – not far removed from co-writing the WORST SONG EVER namely “Take it Easy.” It took the girls years of trying to be that bad before they came up with “Never Been to Me” and “From a Distance.” But in general the 70s “Troubadors” were Grade A narcissists whose chief sin was rampant denial. Taylor inherited all of Carole King’s flaws – corniness, mawkishness, laziness – and none of her occasional flashes of brilliance musically. Probably appreciation of no other “artist” – even the Eagles – made me feel more like an astronaut on the Twilight Zone accidentally arriving on the Parallel Earth Wrong Planet.

  3. lol – I wouldn’t know Lester Bangs from a bar of soap but I felt my eyebrows riding up and down as I followed ‘his’ style of writing in your post. :D

  4. Fine piece.

    I’ve had a brief ponder re your new Bluebird Session request – Mary Margaret O’Hara? Too obvious? How about the Shangri-las?…

Hey there, cupcake! How are ya?

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